Press release

Russia: Freedom House Condemns Putin’s Illegal Annexation of Ukrainian Territories

Sham elections under a violent occupation are illegitimate. Putin’s illegal gambit reflects his contempt for international law, as well as his weakening power as Ukrainian forces retake territory and domestic support for an illegal war plummets.

In response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forced referendums and declaration of the annexation of four occupied territories in Ukraine, Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz issued the following statement:

“Putin is attempting to take another country’s sovereign territory by force while he uses the veneer of democratic elections to rob people of their democratic rights. This is not only a violation of international law, but a sign of Putin’s hypocrisy. Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and external actors cannot hold elections in another country; this move once again showcases Putin’s imperial agenda and contempt for international norms. Elections conducted under a violent occupation cannot be legitimate. It’s clear to all that the referendums’ outcome was predetermined by Moscow—it would be folly to think Putin would give the people of Ukraine voting rights he denies Russian citizens.

“The annexation of illegitimate territorial gains amid ceremonial pomp and circumstance is a thinly veiled attempt to portray strength and success as the Ukrainian army beats back Russian forces on the battlefield, and as the Russian people increasingly express their disapproval of the war.

“The international community must stand with the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and democracy. Governments around the world should refuse to recognize the illegitimate referendums. Ukraine’s allies should continue to provide the support the Ukrainian people need to win the war, as well as to document ongoing war crimes. Freedom House supports calls to seize assets frozen under existing sanctions and direct them toward the reconstruction of Ukraine, and we stand for imposing sanctions on political leaders around the world who continue to enable Putin’s regime and provide it with funding.”


On February 24, 2022, the Russian regime launched an unprovoked, large-scale invasion of Ukraine, a continuation of the Kremlin’s attempts to seize sovereign Ukrainian territory since 2014. On March 16, 2014, Russian occupying authorities held an illegal and illegitimate referendum on the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Since this period, Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces have fought for and controlled large swaths of the two eastern regions of Ukraine, Luhansk, and Donetsk (often known as the Donbas region). The illegitimate governments in these regions are backed by Moscow, but unrecognized by other international actors.

While the Ukrainian military has successfully countered the Russian military’s advances in Kyiv and retaken Ukrainian lands in the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson, Russian occupying forces have maintained control of parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, including portions of the regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. In a blatantly illegal effort to consolidate control over these territories following a series of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives, Kremlin-backed separatist leaders issued formal appeals to Moscow to join the Russian Federation. The Kremlin held sham referendums in these Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine between September 23 and September 27, 2022, with occupation military troops forcing the local population to vote in polling stations and Kremlin authorities prefabricating results in Moscow. Ukrainian authorities reported that Russian troops had forced some individuals to the polls at gunpoint, and had threatened others said to have voted against the annexation with conscription into the Russian army.

To boost the failing Russian military, on September 21, 2022, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” to conscript 300,000 personnel. The mobilization decree has resulted in chaotic and indiscriminate conscription, and a new wave of emigration of service-eligible men from Russia, estimated in the hundreds of thousands in just one week. Initial data suggests that members of certain ethnic minorities are bearing the brunt of the military conscription.

Russia was rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2022 , Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, and as a Consolidated Authoritarian Regime in Nations in Transit 2022. Russia is also one of the world’s worst perpetrators of transnational repression.

Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.